You Have a Question; I Have an Answer: Where Do I Start?

“You Have a Question?  I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.

Q:  Hi Ricki!

I know I haven’t been participating much in the online writer group, and this is honestly because I feel completely out of my depth.  I never worked on newspaper staff, I didn’t major in English, I don’t work in journalism—I took one creative writing class in college and loved it, but that’s about the extent of my training.

I want to break into the writing world, but I really don’t have a clue where to start. Do you have any suggestions for starting points?  I don’t just mean for writing a novel; I’m also interested in freelance or nonfiction writing.


A: Thanks for the question!

First of all, none of this talk about how you didn’t major in English and blah blah blah.  That doesn’t matter!  I’ve been hearing a lot lately, and it’s a little disturbing to me.

Just because Molly happens to be a professor doesn't mean you have to be one!

What matters is you are into writing now and you want to learn the things you don’t know—and that is AWESOME.

I did major in English, but I didn’t always enjoy everything in my program of study.  Nothing against my alma mater—John Carroll University has a great program—but my interests always lay in writing, and I did not get to do enough of it.

Thinking back, it was probably my fault.  I was good at all the analysis and everything, but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in all this that I learned most of what I know today.  Teaching helped with that a lot—and quitting teaching helped with it even more!

The point is, you’re driven.  And that hunger to learn about writing will take you farther than if you were some Waiting-for-Godot-loving (I’m sorry—I hated reading that the 50 billion times I had to read it in college) English major.  So don’t feel hopeless!

But I digress.

As far as getting started with it all, there are couple of things I would suggest.

1) Go to a writers’ conference. There’s nothing like meeting other writers, attending workshops, hearing established authors speak, and schmoozing with industry professionals to get your creative juices flowing!  Although they can be pricey, the amount you can learn in one short weekend or a week-long writing retreat is totally worth it.  In addition to learning about the business as well as the craft of writing, socializing with others and hearing multiple perspectives from writers at all levels can put you on the right path for your own writing future.

Here's a great conference to try!

2) Read about writing. Immerse yourself in writing books, magazines, and blogs.  In terms of your interest in freelancing, I have two book suggestions offhand: Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer and Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing (edited by Michelle Ruberg).  Both of these titles are chockfull of tips on how to generate ideas for articles, how to go about writing them, whom to query, etc.

3) Figure out what kinds of things you can write. Read magazines, newspapers, blogs—find your  niche.  Study the articles that are similar to what you’d like to be writing in the magazines for which you aspire to write.  You’d be surprised at how the ideas will flow.  If you want to try your hand at writing a novel or a nonfiction book, read several types of books until you find one that calls to you.  And when you do?  Read even more of that kind of book.

4.) Find your markets. But once you know what you want to write, you’ll need to check out a book like Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books), which is a reference book published annually (you can also get a Web subscription to it) that lists and categorizes (by genre, region, type, etc.) where you can sell your work, what publications are specifically seeking, what they pay, and how to contact them.

5.) Learn to write an effective query letter. When you’re ready to pitch something, you need to query editors.  You can find several great resources on how to write a query letter (since that’s a whole other animal to attack)—there’s actually a section in Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing that discusses writing query letters.

6.) Actually do it. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at first.  But if you’ve got that nagging feeling in your gut that says you have to write, get your be-hind in front of your laptop and start typing.  Join a writing group—online or IRL—take a class, whatever.  Just let those words out before your brain explodes.🙂

But don't let it make you insane . . .

SWA Presenter Spotlight: Author & Lit Agent Katharine Sands

As I announced in December, I will be teaching a workshop on journalistic writing* at the 35th annual Southeastern Writers Association conference in June 2010.

To gear up for that, I am featuring interviews and spotlights with this year’s presenters.**

Next up is author and literary agent Katharine Sands.


Each year, the Southeastern Writers Association conference hosts one agent in residence; this year, Katharine Sands of Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency will hold that spot.


As an agent, Sands represents authors in a variety of areas, including: literary and commercial fiction as well as nonfiction projects dealing with food/lifestyle, self-help, cooking, travel, spirituality, pop culture, film/entertainment, humor and home/design.

In addition to taking on and working with clients, Sands wrote Making the Perfect Pitch: Advice from 45 Top Book Agents (Kalmbach), which compiles pitching advice from several of the industry’s top agents.

At the conference in June, Sands will be teaching a class called “Pitchcraft . . . and Querial Killers: How Not to Get an Agent, Even If You Are a Talented Writer.” As well, she will hear pitches in one-on-one sessions and work with writers in group critique classes during the latter half of the program.


One of last year’s SWA presenters, editor Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books, posted a great interview with Sands on his Guide to Literary Agents blog.

Here is an excerpt:

GLA: Speaking of meeting writers at conferences, what do you think is the most common mistake writers make when they give a short in-person pitch to an agent?

KS: One of the things I believe people do wrong is to speak to agents as they would a tax professional or lawyer – somebody for hire who is there to listen to their process and backstory and get involved with their case in that way. Agents are listening in for a reason to be interested, first and foremost, and they’re not going to be interested in the writer’s (process), the word count, what is impeding, or why the writer doesn’t want to do extra work.

See the full interview here.


For more information about the Southeastern Writers Association conference in June, please see their registration page as well as my recent post.  Don’t wait to sign up—you only have until April 1 to participate in contests and manuscript evaluations, so reserve your spot today!

*To learn more about the workshop I’m teaching, click here.

**For more SWA Presenter Spotlights, click the appropriately-named category in the right-hand sidebar.

In the Blogosphere: 3/15-3/19

“In the Blogosphere” is a weekly series, which lists links to writing-related blogs I’ve stumbled upon throughout a given week.  Most posts will be from that week, but if I find some “oldies but goodies,” I’ll throw those up here as well.

I never find as much time to read blogs as I want, but here are a few posts that struck me this week.


If you didn’t see my post about the Shenandoah Writers Query Symposium I’m helming, please check it out.  I’m looking to compile some of best query-writing resources out there and discuss them with my writing groups.  I plan to turn this “symposium” into a series of blog posts, so even if you’re not a member of Shenandoah Writers, give me your two cents (i.e., comment or e-mail with your favorite query resources or tips).  A few brave souls have even given me queries they’ve written so we can critique them, so there are multiple ways you can get involved.

This is an oldie but goodie.  It was actually written on my birthday in 2006 (but I digress) by the long-retired literary agent known to millions only by her scathing pseudonym, Miss SnarkShe gives the straight dope on your plot pitch versus a synopsis.

Here, mystery writer Elizabeth Spann Craig offers some ways to reveal a protagonist’s character through self discovery.

I recently discovered young adult fiction writer Jamie Harrington‘s blog, Totally the (love that name, BTW!).  And I’ve already found two posts I love.  In this one, Harrington talks about five clichés used in young adult lit.  And in this one, she dissects the classic love triangle.

My favorite thing about this picture is that they actually made Taylor Lautner stand on a box. Hilarious!

This is another oldie but goodie, but at her blog, The Bookshelf Muse, the Jill Corcoran-repped kids’ lit author Angela Ackerman has a great resource for conveying emotion through a character’s body language.  It’s not just for overcoming the five clichés Harrington outlines above, and it’s not just for juvenile lit.  In this post, Ackerman introduces the idea of the “emotion thesaurus,” (which provides alternatives to having a character shrug his shoulders or roll his eyes).  If you look in her sidebar on the right, she’s got a slew of entries under The Emotional Thesaurus.


Blogging making you crazy?  Author Jody Hedlund offers some advice on what do to when your blog overwhelms you.

And here, Carol T. Cohn of Compukol Connection explains why you need to edit those pesky blog posts.

Shane Nickerson gives this amusing take on how Twitter slowly takes over your life.

Twitter zombie. Hey - not a bad idea for an urban fantasy!😉


Not sure whether to go with a big agency or a boutique agency?  Epstein Literary agent and founder Kate Epstein discusses the pros and cons of both.

Last week, Twitter was abuzz with talk of Lowenstein Associates, Inc., agent Kathleen Ortiz‘s blog post on query etiquette.  This week, she added an equally-as-important part two.

And I really felt for Caren Johnson Literary Agency‘s Elana Roth when she posted her thoughts on the protocol with regard to those queries/partials/fulls left hanging when a writer is offered representation.  Although she got a bit bashed in some of the comments, she started a discussion that I think needed to be addressed.  And she handled the backlash well.  Kudos!


Dudes—Harry Potter is on the brain! Like it or not, writers can learn a lot from J.K. Rowling‘s famous example.

Last week, I did a post on how to break up a manuscript of epic proportions, and I used the Potter series to illustrate dramatic arcs (in it, I outlined Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone‘s dramatic arc and discussed the overarching arc of the series).

This week, I’m seeing posts—left and right—using Rowling’s baby to illustrate all kinds of things.  Coincidence?  Actually, yes.  I’m not that important! As well, some of these posts are older:

  • Here, guest blogger Jim Adams talks “showing” and “telling” in scenes and dialogue on Jane Friedman‘s (of Writer’s Digest) blog, There Are No Rules.
  • In this post, Adams is at it again, giving tips on how to stretch the tension in a series.
  • On St. Patty’s Day, Adams addressed conflict, according to Potter.
  • Here, Friedman provides a complete list of links to all the posts in Adam’s 13-part series.
  • And the good folks over at‘s Book Blog talk about character names in fantasy (but the post will interest writers of all genres)—with special attention to The Series that Need Not Be Named.

"Ohhhhh, Accio DEATHLY HALLOWS." --Hank Green


Business Wire reported that Follett, college textbook wholesaler, will join forces with Bookrenter to start a textbook rental program.  Where was this when I was in grad school?


Are you a Jane Austen fan?  Adept at writing queries?  Here’s a contest over at Getting Past the Gatekeeper that combines both of these things—write a query as if you wrote, and are pitching, Pride and Prejudice!


Last, but not least, congratulations are in order.  My Writer’s Digest Books editor pal Chuck Sambuchino got a mention in Publishers Weekly for his upcoming humor book . . .

. . . and in the same post, it was announced that young adult fantasy author Beth Revis signed a huuuuuge three-book deal (I don’t really know her, but we have some mutual friends and I’m deciding to share in her excitement).

Congrats, peeps!

A toast to you!

Editing: Get Distance, Get Advice & Get Over It

When I finished my first manuscript—well, the first time I finished it (heh)—there was one nagging question I had in the back of my mind: is the time span too long?

It started with my protagonist in her sophomore year of college, flashed back through some of high school, and ended up just after her college graduation; so, while the span was technically only two years, it seemed like six or seven because of the flashback.


I swapped manuscripts with a few other YA writers—without mentioning my concern about time span.  I figured, we’ll see if it slides.  For the most part, I received positive feedback, but one woman—the one whose manuscript was the best out of all those I critiqued and the one who, during our swap, landed a literary agent—mentioned she thought I should set the whole thing in high school somehow.

Ugh—I wanted to query—but I knew she was right.  So I set out to make it fit within the parameters of my main character’s sophomore through senior years of high school.


Halfway through the manuscript makeover, I attended the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop and had a critique with Waxman Literary’s fabulous Holly Root.  When she said three years is still too long of a time span for young adult lit, although it killed me, I knew she was right. As a friend at that conference put it, “Three years in YA is the equivalent of War and Peace.”  So I trudged home, consulted several fellow writers, read several YA books and studied those I’d already read, and even asked YA author Lauren Myracle for some advice.

Myracle reiterated what most people had said, most kids’ books take place over a very short period of time (a few weeks, a semester, a school year at the longest). In addition, she asked if I had more than one arc—because, if I did, I could split the book into two.


During that month of researching and gearing up to edit once more, the biggest thing I had to overcome was wrapping my head around mushing my story from three years into two semesters.  I was too close to it at the time, and I just didn’t see how it was possible.

I thought a good deal about what my editor and friend, Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books, had said when he reviewed my pages: there was a lot I could cut—if the reader “gets it” with just one scene, why drag it out and have three similar scenes?  He said he often sees this when writers add autobiographical elements to their manuscripts; they want to stay true to “how it happened” and they end up sacrificing story because of it.

So, with some distance from my novel and armed with lots of great advice, I put marker to dry-erase board and plotted out my story.  I looked at every scene and evaluated its worth to the overall story.  With the fictionalized autobiographical scenes, I let go of the “how it happened”—and in most cases, I eliminated them altogether.  It all began to click into place.

SO . . .

It took about a month of revisions, but what I now have is a much tighter, much better, much more marketable story.  I ended up changing my focus pretty much completely, playing up my hook, adding/deleting scenes—and it still wound up being 20K words shorter.

I’m not saying this process won’t likely happen all over again when/if a lit agent is interested in it—and then probably again when/if a publisher is interested in it.  But the most important lesson here is that, if you’re too attached to the “how it happened,” too in love with your words, and too close to your manuscript, you cannot be an effective editor.

In the below Vlogbrothers video, YA author John Green talks editing.  He says he deletes over 90% of his original words and that all the things people like about his books emerge in later drafts. Enjoy!

You Have a Question? I Have an Answer: Where to Find Script Agents/Managers

“You Have a Question?  I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.

Q:  Hi Ricki. Even though I live in LA and am a screenwriter, I need your assistance in approaching agents from CAA, WME, UTA, et al who would be appropriate.  In other words—a few suggestions?  I got the idea to approach you after reading your interview with Dorian Karchmar.  I need an agent and am clueless as far as whom to approach.  Would you know, and could you help?


A: Thanks for the question!

I’m not as versed in the area of script agents/script managers, as I’ve only interviewed literary agents and authors at this point.  However, I’m very interested in screenwriting—and I will be interviewing some script managers for Writer’s Digest Books’ 2011 Screenwriter’s & Playwright’s Market—so I guess it’s time to dive into that subject!

*Some* literary agencies handle screenplays - but in my experience, most do not. You just have to do the research to find out!

On the GLA blog, where I’m assuming you read my Karchmar interview, Chuck Sambuchino lists “Screenwriting and Script Agents” as one of his categories located on the left of the blog.  If you click on that heading, he has some interviews with script agents as well as a few other informative posts in the area of screenwriting.  Maybe that could be a lead?

As well, in addition to Guide to Literary Agents, Sambuchino also puts out the aforementioned Screenwriter’s and Playwright’s Market, which is a huge database of script agents among other things.  I’ve got the 2009 edition right here, and one major section of it lists agents/script managers.  Many of the listings even show what genres the agents accept, so that should help you find someone tailored to your (awesome!) projects.

If you can get your hands on one of these babies, you'll be able to find exactly what you're looking for.

Good luck to you!

10 Aims for 2010

As I’ve been traveling for the past two and a half weeks and because I got snowed in at my parents’ house the day I was set to trek back to the Old Dominion, my new year’s resolutions don’t officially kick in until this week.

Without further ado and because I feel like my posting  them might make me more accountable for following through with them, here is what I resolve to do in 2010:

  • Finish editing my manuscript. I’ve had many distractions since cutting down the time line of my plot, but I resolve to finish it once and for all within the next two weeks—at all costs.

  • Come up with one of my insane-o schedules, and stick to it. Vampire hours have served me well in terms of the final rounds of my editing, but they’ve pretty much ruined me in terms of the day-to-day aspects of my life.  I. Need. Structure!
  • Work out. I got an exercise ball for Christmas, and my in-laws were nice enough to donate their recumbent bike to the cause, so I’m about to break out all the Billy Blanks DVDs I can and get back in gear.  I know diet and exercise is everyone’s New Year’s resolution, but it’s an especially important one to me, and following resolution #2 will help me get exercise back into my life.
  • Cut carbs & sodium. Goodbye, penne pasta—sayonara, extra salt!  It’s not you; it’s me: I don’t want to be disgusting anymore.  I’ll say a quick hello at breakfast, but you’re dead to me after that.

  • Drink more water. Coffee may as well be on an IV drip in my office, and although I love it and cannot (and will not) cut it out, I need to drink more straight-up water.  Five of my awesome James Madison U water bottles a day ought to do it for now.  Difficult as it was, when I was in the greatest shape of my life (after age 22), I drank eight 16-oz. bottles a day.  I want that body back!
  • Implement all my ideas for my online writing group, Shenandoah Writers Online.  True, I only created the social networking site a month ago, but I have so many ideas for networking and other writing opportunities for the site that I feel I’ve neglected my baby.  I knew the holiday season would slow things down, but now is the time to focus and get organized.
  • Freelance, freelance, freelance. I’ve got some articles forthcoming in the 2011 editions of three Writer’s Digest Books, but I’m insatiable!  I want to write for several magazines this year – so I guess I’d better get cracking on that query process as well!

  • Go to two to three awesome writing conferences. I’m already going to one, Southeastern Writers Association (at which I’ll be teaching), but I want to go to at least one more and revel in all the writerly goodness.
  • Finish my second YA manuscript—at least a first draft.  In fact, one of my SWO ideas is to host my own NaNoWriMo—even if I’m the only participant—so maybe I will accomplish that then.  I’m thinking February…because it’s nice and short.

Although there are about a hundred other things I need to do, I don’t want my list to get out of hand; so this is all I’ll write for now.


Please feel free to ask me about my progress with any of these, as I’m sure I’ll need help sticking to them all.  If I’ve got people on my case about whether or not I’m following through, I’m much more apt to do it.

What are your resolutions?